JUST MARRY HIM?

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Lori Gottlieb is raising a furore among women with her new book "Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough". But her original article in the Atlantic provoked some sympathy from Adelle Waldman, whose response is republished here ...

Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE

The Sex and the City movie was not the only big event in the public conversation about women and marriage last spring. For the thinking woman, the vapid romance flick likely took a backseat to the real head scratcher: Lori Gottlieb's controversial essay, "Marry Him! The case for settling for Mr. Good Enough", published in the Atlantic in March.

Don't wait for true love, Gottlieb argued--not if you are a woman in your 30s and you want to have a family. Romantic passion is not as important as a second pair of hands for diaper-changing and meal preparation. A single mom in her early 40s who got pregnant by artificial insemination, Gottlieb has earned some street cred on the subject.

If I had read her essay five years ago, I would have been scornful. Now, I'm 31 and a lot more sympathetic. I'm no longer able to write her off as one of those bitter marriage-crazed women I was sure I'd never be.

Gottlieb gets a lot right about what it's like to be a heterosexual, middle-class, single woman in her 30s, and how different it is from being a heterosexual, middle-class single woman in her 20s. What took me by surprise is the extent to which the change is palpable, even for women like me, who haven't been planning their dream wedding since girlhood; who are in fact ambivalent about babies and marriage.

The truth about turning 30 is that the question of marriage, and by extension dating, becomes much more angst-ridden. "Every woman I know," wrote Gottlieb, "no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure--feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried." I think panic overstates it, let alone desperation, but Gottlieb is right that something big changes for women around that age.

Dating, however little fun you thought it was in your 20s, becomes even more fraught. It is not just heartbreak over a particular guy or general loneliness that keeps you up at night. Those will still be there, but on top there will be a new worry, the one about winding up alone. When you were younger, that sounded preposterous and melodramatic--because no matter how upset you were in the moment, deep down you believed you'd find your Mr Right eventually. Now, it seems like "eventually" may be too late.

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This is a sad moment of reckoning, perhaps especially for smart, independent-minded women. Surely such anxieties over finding a husband belonged to a different sort of woman: someone more conventional, more girlish, less interesting. As a woman who was never on a marriage track, I and many of my friends held up being contentedly single as a virtue, something to aspire to. Many of us believed we needed to learn how to be okay on our own before we could be ready to settle down. Serial monogamists seemed a little weak, somehow.

But alas, biology does not wait for professional, personal and psychological fulfilment. And suitable husbands rarely appear on the scene the very moment their presence is desired.

Meanwhile, it's not just the woman who gets older, but her parents too. Younger women can readily laugh off hints about grandkids, but as the years pile on and the parents' health grows less robust, it sinks in that they won't be around forever. Their desire to know their grandkids becomes more poignant.

These realisations, rooted in biology and unmoved by career ambitions and other pursuits of fulfilment, can lead to a gradual change of perspective. Our earlier attempts to find contentment on our own, once seen as the height of sophistication, can now appear a tad immature. It turns out that all of life is not quite like college, designed primarily to foster personal growth. Those women who were so uninterestingly preoccupied with marriage in their early 20s now seem somewhat smarter in retrospect. Or at least more shrewd.

Even women who are absolutely sure they don't want marriage and kids find that dynamics of dating change. The power tilts increasingly towards men, who have a larger pool of single women at their disposal. Many of us who were once cavalier about being on our own soon discover the urge to assert that we are single by choice. We are more eager to trot out stories of the rejections delivered; the suitors left wanting. We are terribly off-hand in describing our doubts about having children to men (oh how laid back and unpresuming we sound). In other words, we are left wondering whether this isn't simply a different brand of husband-hunting.

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marry him

Perhaps I sound like a bitter single woman, one who messed up and has discovered it's too late. But that's not at all true. I'm glad not to have married any of the guys I dated in my 20s, and I'm happy with my boyfriend (whom I met when I was in my 30s). I'm not trying to imply that women in their 20s ought to marry at any cost to avoid a terrible fate; I simply feel that it's better to be honest about the negatives than to pretend that there are none.

Unlike Gottlieb, I do not advocate settling. I still believe that if marrying a certain man doesn't feel right, then there is something wrong.

Yet I think Gottlieb has done something important in writing so candidly about her own romantic regrets. She debunks the vapid "You go, girl!" form of empowerment, which often harms women by suggesting that they shouldn't settle for less than everything. As a television series, Sex and the City dramatised some of the challenges (and perks) of looking for love as a mature woman. Unfortunately its big-screen culmination delivered a very Hollywood ending--fluffily satisfying, but hardly representative. Gottlieb, in contrast, tells her story as if she were speaking to a roomful of adults, who can be trusted not to faint at bad news.

"Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough" (Dutton), by Lori Gottlieb, out now (Adelle Waldman has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Village Voice and the New York Observer, among other outlets. Based in New York, she is working on a novel about unmarried women.)